The Weight Is A Gift: The Sculpture of Emily Smith
Carin, a stunning installation in 2009 by Emily Smith, in its first iteration, fabric,paper, batting, dimensions variable
Dysfunction in the realm of a child’s activities is usually seen as the byproduct of immature thinking, and indistinct actions. The inverse perception of adult foibles or misbehavior, from the child’s point of view, resonates beyond the piercing moment, through the child’s prolonged experiences into adulthood.
The inexorable weight of experience figures largely in the sculpture research of Emily Smith in her Graduate Thesis Exhibition, The Weight is a Gift. With vivid memories of familial burden comes the occasional resplendent shadows of joy. This is tempered in the work by adolescent guilt associated with issues of dysfunction inevitably witnessed in adult behavior.
Closing Day (forground), table cloth, plaster, monofilament. 2011, dimensions variable.
Smith’s paternal Grandmother, Baba, was a Holocaust survivor who carried the memories of a horror that only few people can remember. Smith’s memory of Baba is dramatically tempered by a short, horrific account of the first few days of incarceration:
“ …They had us in this big house. It was a hallway – we had to strip naked
– and 25 feet below was the Brausebad - where
they herded us woman on one side man on the other naked – and turned on the showers from the ceiling hot, cold, hot, cold – many old people passed out. There I saw my mother naked for the first time in my life – it was physical and
psychological terroristic experience….”
With many artists, vivid residual experiences of familial hardship and discord are a minefield of urgent inquiry. The sculptural products of this inquiry would, with most artists, suggest grandiose gestures, with dramatic visual impact, affecting images of intense, human drama.
Smith’s sculpture subverts this expectation in a measured reduction of drama, and the manipulation of common, temporal materials that most observers would associate with familial normalcy. The ideas carry historical richness and weight in their importance, yet they are physically light, shedding the burden of the horrors that have inspired them.
The most dramatic event in Smith’s childhood was the brutal murder of her maternal Grandmother at the hands of Smith’s deranged Grandfather. The devastating effect of this act lies at the very core of Smith’s obsessive need to deconstruct and re-construct materials (knitting), but also influences another obsessive need to archive sensations of memories from her Grandmother through the recreation of monuments to ephemeral, utilitarian objects.
Marian is a double portrait using re-created utilitarian objects as stand-ins for her grandparents. Smith writes:
Marian is comprised of a zinc cast
of an electrical outlet with an unscrewed screw and a
single hand-tatted doily hung side-by-side on the wall. My grandfather’s nickname was Bud and my grandmother’s name was Marian. On some afternoons, he would walk around his house and tighten all the electrical outlets in the house, even though they had not been unscrewed significantly. I have equated this anal-retentive and obsessive personality trait with the old saying, “he’s got a screw loose”. This pun also makes reference to the fact that my grandfather was clinically psychotic at the time he murdered my grandmother. The doily embodies everything that I equate with my grandmother; it has a delicate and fragile beauty that may fall apart at any moment. The visual organization of these two objects next to each other is based on a formal portrait that was taken of my grandparents where Bud is standing behind a seated Marian. The outlet is placed at eye level and the doily is hung on the screw that holds the outlet to the wall. The symmetry of the doily is also vaguely reminiscent of a human face, as is an electrical outlet.
Marian, 2011, cast zinc, fabric,14 "x 12"
Other works display assemblages of doilies that seem to levitate above ghost furniture, or blanket a wall, in celebration of practical domestic use and texture. Another wall to floor work, Carin, 2009-10, in its 2nd iteration, uses found-knitting and pillow fabrication as the basis for marking a point in time, in a way similar to stones marking important locations.
Carin, 2009-10, fabric, batting, 70” x 48” x 39”
Presence & Absence (wall), 2011, plaster, fabric The Weight Is A Gift (foreground), plaster, birch, pine, paint. 2011, 96” x 24” x 12”.
Kilim, 2009 is the most dramatic of the wall works. Smith’s explanation of the work’s origin is dramatic and clear:
“Kilim was inspired by an actual wall blanket that was draped on a wall in Baba’s home in Bosnia. The actual kilim in the house was obtained on a journey that my father and my grandmother took in the summer of 1971 to her homeland. During this trip, Baba went back to her original home (the one she had been forced to leave by the Nazis and was miraculously still standing) and took this wall blanket back from the new owners of her house, as it was a dowry from her Slovenian father to her German mother on their wedding day. It had miraculously survived the war unscathed. My father was then tasked to carry the fifty-pound kilim across his back in a rucksack for the remainder of their trip across Europe. This kilim became a symbol in my family of what had been lost and found again, and the weight of her trials endured in the camp and tragedies later in her life.”
Kilim, 2008, steel wool, 98” x 48 “
The work that addresses Smith’s coming to terms with issues of dysfunction most effectively is Self Portrait, 2009, a gigantic collection of wadded tissue papers that are compressed into a larger ball whose outer surface is defined by delicate edges of subtle blue tissue leaves. The ball vibrates, suggesting the refuse has some secret life…one that the viewer discovers, understanding that life is irrevocably short-lived, and quietly menacing.
Smith describes this work as a manifestation of her anxiety...as with all the work in this exhibition, we become consorts in her journey, considering the profound labor in the machinations of memory, and in our reasoned desire to understand purpose in both glorious, and errant human events.
Self Portrait, 2011, tissues, glue, motors, dimensions variable
Many thanks to the other members of Emily Smiths’s Thesis Committee: Associate Professor of Fine Art, Photography, Bill O’Donnell, and Professor of Fine Art, Video, Scott Rankin
Thanks to Professor Tony Crowley, Director of The School of Art, Illinois State University
Thanks to Professor James Major, Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Illinlois State University
Many Thanks to Professor of Fine Arts, Photography, Ms Jin Lee, Graduate Coordinator, School of Art
A huge thank you to the Fine Arts Community of students, faculty and staff who showed great encouragement and support for Emily’s ideas and workThanks to Dr. Gary Brooks and Mrs. Margaret Brooks, the supportive parents of Emily Smith
And thanks to Emily’s supportive husband, Harry Smith